Self-care is ingrained in Cathy Phelps’ leadership style. As the executive director of the Denver-based nonprofit The Center for Trauma and Resilience (CTR) for the past 18 years, Phelps has dedicated her life to helping others heal from trauma. At CTR, her staff help people recover through their suite of healing practices — trauma sensitive yoga, ear acupuncture (Acudetox) and individual and group therapy, to name a few.
But, just as the CTR staff practices compassion with the people they serve, they are also intentional about caring for themselves. Under Phelps’ leadership, much of the staff have become registered yoga teachers (like herself) and have been trained as Acudetox specialists. “We can be so much more when … we’re not dragging ourselves around,” Phelps says.
Leading a growing nonprofit can feel like a 24-hour job, however. “My team is really good about taking care of themselves and taking care of me, but you always feel like you’re the director of a nonprofit, and so you are in charge all the time,” Phelps states.
So, when she saw the announcement from The Colorado Health Foundation for the nonprofit sabbatical program, she lit up. “It was so out of the ordinary. No one invests in nonprofit executives in this nature,” says Phelps.
The program provides nonprofit leaders with the opportunity to take a three to four month paid sabbatical with funds to also cover staff development and interim leadership while they are on leave. Recipients are required to completely step away from their positions, cut all communication with their staff and focus on whatever is meaningful for them. “You could stay home and watch Netflix!” jokes Phelps.
When Phelps learned that she had won one of the four awards given in 2021, she felt like a lottery winner. She was bombarded with ideas of what to do — from seeing the Seven Wonders of the World to traveling to Indonesian islands. But, she knew she needed to do what fueled her. “I had to take time to get quiet [and figure out] what makes sense for me.”
Phelps has big plans for her four months away. From a month in Mexico to immerse herself in language and culture to an African safari and private salsa lessons — she is going to do what she has never had the time to do before.
But of course, fueling her soul also includes sharing her gifts with others, and Phelps’ passion for healing trauma remains her guiding light. Through one of her Zumba connections in Denver, she learned of a community in Kenya that had recently experienced the traumatic loss of one of its members, an elite athlete, who was stabbed to death by her husband.
“We could really use your help,” she was told, so she decided to make some adjustments to her plan. She will take her tools of trauma sensitive yoga, compassion fatigue workshops and art therapy to the local girls’ school in Kenya to assist in their healing and recovery. She hopes to leave them with the tools they need to continue their healing journey. “It’s a twist to my sabbatical, [and] I am excited to work with them,” Phelps shares.
Phelps knows that this experience will be life changing and will undoubtedly impact the way she leads. “I’m always looking for inspiration, and it seems to find me, or I find it … I think this [sabbatical] will contribute to that,” she believes.
Working at a place that is trauma-serving 365 days a year is an exercise in self-care and self-compassion, and Phelps understands the importance of being gentle with ourselves. As a longtime nonprofit leader, stepping away from her position is a vulnerable experience that takes courage and trust.
“There is something about being able to step away … to see if what you have built will sustain itself,” reflect Phelps. But, she knows that this opportunity is exactly what she needs, and she has no reservations about leaving. She quotes Nelson Mandela, “I never lose. I either win or learn.”
To learn more about and support The Center for Trauma and Resilience visit traumahealth.org or visit coloradohealth.org/nonprofit-sabbatical-program to read more about The Colorado Health Foundation’s nonprofit sabbatical program.
Photo courtesy of the Center for Trauma and Resilience.
Originally published in Summer + Fall 2022 Issue.
For over 10 years, Marisol Cruz has practiced yoga for its profound healing and revelatory qualities. She believes that yoga is a tool for gaining a deeper understanding of ourselves and the way we relate to the world. In her classes, Marisol focuses on pranayama breathing exercises and vinyasa practice to guide students through their own personal experiences. When she is not practicing yoga, Marisol dedicates her days to serving the community through her work with nonprofits. She lives in Denver with her husband and two little boys.